Diabolical liveries

The Devil
December 15, 1995

The iconographer of Satan faces the dilemma that the most subtle orthodox religious thought about the devil envisages him as absence, not presence, as intrinsically unavailable to representation. Luther Link, in his study of the devil in art from around 500 to 1600, finds that the strongest characteristic of the devil's portraiture is "the discontinuity of images". Unlike Jesus and Mary, or Saint Jerome and the Magdalen, Satan has no fixed attributes, no recognisable set to his features or colour of his complexion or pattern of gestures. He can be horned and hooved, or rooster-headed and dragon-tailed, red or black or green; he is protean and hence unrecognisable, "a mask without a face".

The Giotto fresco from the Arena Chapel, Padua, that appears on the cover shows the tempter as shadow, a black form with a pointed muzzle like the jackal-headed god Anubis, laying his claws on Judas's arm as Judas accepts the 30 talents of silver. The devil's semantic function in Giotto's scheme, to underline the scriptural identification of Judas with Satan, was intended to promote any incipient antisemitism in the viewer. But his physical image, his insubstantial wraith-like presence, makes Link's central point, that, as he declares in his near-exasperated conclusion: "No other sign or supposed symbol is so flat. I the Devil is only a costume, even if it has become inseparable from the skins of those that wear it."

Evil these days is on our minds: human evil, not destiny's blows. Voltaire may have found divine providence hard to accept after the Lisbon earthquake, but reason today faces horrors with less than supernatural causes, with agents whose faces are all too well known and whose proximity is all too keen: former Yugoslavia, and more recently, Rosemary and Frederick West. There has been a spate of studies of evil in the history of thought and representation, especially from the United States, where the terrorist bomb in Oklahoma brought home the ferocity of internecine hatred that, at an anaesthetic distance from the prairies, Northern Ireland and Rwanda had been suffering for some time.

This summer, Elaine Pagels published her study, The Origin of Satan, in which she makes the case that the stratagem of demonisation first develops in the New Testament. When inquisitors labelled and libelled their enemies, they could accuse them of evildoing from the position of anointed and privileged piety, and then order their destruction without twinges of conscience. Puzzlingly, she does not see the vengeful God of the Old Testament (who must be solely responsible for the survival of the verb "smite" in the English language) as contributing to the persecuting tendency of the churches - in its multiple denominations. Bernard McGinn published another book, Antichrist, a major work that has not yet appeared in the United Kingdom. In The Death of Satan, a thoughtful series of philosophical essays, Anthony Delbanco takes a new direction: he first declares unequivocally that there has been an increase in brutality, exploitation, greed, lust and so forth, in the US as in the rest of the world, and then attributes this to the disappearance of evil as a concept, to a collective retreat from the intellectual struggle to define ethics.

Delbanco surveys the limits of irony, and the inadequacy of relative values, and then makes a call for clear and unwavering principles based on belief in determinable ideas of the good and the bad. Though this might sound like Ian Paisley in full cry, Delbanco does not resemble any of the menacing moral conservatives, here or over there. He clearly diagnoses blaming and name calling and denials of personal responsibility and other fundamentalist tendencies as an acute danger, and stresses in counterbalance the Thomist concept that evil is not an independent entity, but an absence of the good, personified in the figure of the Tempter. So Delbanco, who is also not a Christian, nevertheless differs from Pagels in finding the Satan of Aristotelian-Christian tradition an ethical instrument: "If evil, with all the insidious complexity which Aristotle attributed to it, escapes the reach of our imagination, it will have established dominion over us all. If the privative conception of evil continues to be lost between liberal irony on the one hand, and fundamentalist demonising on the other, we shall have no way of confronting the most challenging experiences of our private and public lives."

Luther Link, in his brief, ambitious survey, The Devil, rapidly records the varying manifestations of the devil in the Bible. Lucifer is named at Isaiah 14:12; the prophet is referring to a pagan king of Babylon, who, according to a Canaanite myth, overreached himself and was hurled down into the underworld for his hubris. (The Jerusalem Bible has all but erased the Authorised Version's memory of this: "How did you come to fall from the heavens, Daystar, son of Dawn?") But the metaphor of kingship (the shining star) slipped to denominate Satan himself (the fallen angel) in several early texts, like the once-revered Book of Enoch, and was finally arrested and set firm by the words of Jesus himself, who tells his disciples: "I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven" (Luke 10:18).

But God could not have engendered a being who was wicked in the first place; the fathers wrestled memorably with the problem, until Augustine defined the perennial conflict between free will and concupiscence. An obscure story in Genesis about the lasciviousness of angels, coupling with "the daughters of men" and giving birth to terrible giants, sketched the background of Satan's sin against God. Originally lust, it was developed later into a humanist statement of pride, and after that, into an existential condition of exile. The devil is not a single character in the Bible. Some attempt to systematise his multiple and polymorphous manifestations goes on, and in the Apocalypse, John sees the vehicles of evil rolled into one: "The great dragon, the primeval serpent, known as the devil or Satan, who had deceived all the world, was hurled down to the earth and his angels were hurled down with him" (Apoc. 12:9).

Artists consequently had biblical authority to depict Satan as a dragon, a snake, an angel, as Leviathan, and Beelzebub, as a demon, as a goblin; they mixed and matched paraphernalia from reptiles and monsters - claws and beaks and scales and wings; they also frequently reached for imagery of pagan deities: Link proposes that Bes, a naked Egyptian gnome with flaming hair may have inspired some Romanesque capitol carvings of devils; Pan and the fauns and satyrs of classical erotica bequeathed to the Christian Satan their cloven hoof, their tails, their furry limbs. For the devil's primal blackness, Link diagnoses an ancient Egyptian legacy of prejudice against the south, against Ethiopians and Nubians; he tends not to dig for symbolic reasons, and does not address the metaphors of hell's eternal night and the darkness of the damned. He can be rash, too, or perhaps the problem is literal-mindedness, for he states that "though naked, the devil in the arts is deprived of genitals I" Yet devils in the Last Judgements from the 12th to the 15th centuries are the phallic forebears of today's masculine morphs - like the Terminator, or Robocop - with protuberances multiplied all over their bodies, and often a monster mask with beak and jaws between their legs and emblazoned on their bottom. Artists also sometimes squeeze revulsion from their audience by blurring sexual distinction in diabolical forms: the medieval devil can display suspiciously armoured orifices as well as withered pendulous dugs. The diabolical body is for ever devouring: hell is a devil's banquet and Satan its master of ceremonies. The cycle by which sinners are eaten, regurgitated (and excreted) serves as the dominant metaphor in Dante, and then in the visions of Giotto, and Bosch and Breugel, to convey the cyclical stasis of hell, the ever-present eternity of pain.

As the author's primary focus is art, and he does not deal with the devil in literature, it is also rather wild to assert that "Literary treatments of the devil (with the exception of one ninth-century Old Saxon manuscript) were mainly paraphrases of biblical sources until, c.1589, Christopher Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus". The Miracle of Theophilus (itself a source of the Faust story) and Mary of Nimmegen do not present devils with the full individual charm of Mephistopheles, but their tempters figure as personalities none the less. In the large medieval body of supernatural voyages that culminate in Dante's vision, the devil and his mocking minions echo the visions of the Apocalypse, but they are much more intimately vivid and more particularly horrible than they are in the Bible, I think. Drythelm, for example, in a revelation of the seventh century, describes: "some of the dark spirits ascended from that flaming abyss, and running forward, attacked me on all sides and confounded me with their glaring eyes and the stinking fire that came from the mouths and noses. They threatened to lay hold of me with the burning tongs they had in their hands I" Stephen Dedalus's terrors sprang from this chiliastic, menacing territory.

The Devil is organised thematically, and consequently it is hard to grasp a chronology of change in devil imagery. Perhaps this is the inevitable outcome of continuing undecidability about diabolical nature and how to represent it adequately in pictorial form. The devil always seems to belong to another, more primitive, more terrible period, wherever and whenever he appears. Link does, however, identify some high points. Gislebertus's carving of c.1130 on the tympanum of Autun shows an emaciated, spider-limbed ghoul with mouth agape and aghast expression as he snatches a screaming soul in its claws. The Limbourg Brothers, in their delicate gilded and azure illumination of Les Tres Riches Heures of 1415, depicted for the first time a beautiful, epicene, young and blond Lucifer as he was falling, in a shower of sparks, headfirst down from heaven. But Link warns that the Brothers could not possibly have intended any Miltonic or Blakean conception of Satan's noble rebellion. A hundred and thirty years on, Michelangelo's last wall of the Sistine Chapel, depicted "the Last Judgement without pity"; under the raised arm of the smiting Judge, with Mary the intercessor cowering, the devil and his assistants act as enthusiastic agents of divine justice.

But can the devil be simultaneously the adversary of God, and his collaborator? This is one of the riddles monotheism poses, and Link, who teaches at the Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, praises the guardian demons of eastern faith, whose wrath is directed at the wicked, from which they are clearly distinguished. But the evil of others, as part of the divine providential scheme or part of the devil's work, can still be routinely invoked to conceal all too human compulsion towards dominion; in the ostensible cause of rooting out evil, evil grows.

Some of the strongest pages in this book focus on the Church's shift, in the latter part of the 12th century, from labelling outsiders (heathens) as evil to finding the viper in its own bosom (heretics). Satan has provided a pretext for Christian intolerance, and the civil wars and private horrors of recent months and years have made it urgent to produce an ethic of good and evil, inside the relative language of liberalism, and well outside the tradition of blame, trammel, torture, annihilation that accompanied the growth of Christian demonisation. This is the knot Luther Link angrily unpicks as he records the opportunism with which the devil has been invoked. In his most chilling piece of iconographic decipherment, he identifies the hooked fork with which devils rake the flesh of the damned as a grapnel, frequently used by torturers in the pursuit of heresy.

Marina Warner is visiting professor in women's studies, University of Ulster, and has recently published From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers.

The Devil: A Mask without a Face

Author - Luther Link
ISBN - 0 948462 67 1
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £17.95
Pages - 208

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